In NLRB v. White Oak Manor, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals enforced a decision by the National Labor Relations Board finding that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act when it discharged an employee for allegedly photographing employees at work without permission. The Court agreed with the Board’s findings that the employee was actually discharged because of protected concerted activity and that the employer had not enforced its photography and dress code policies consistently.
Nichole Wright-Gore worked as a supply clerk for White Oak Manor. White Oak’s policies prohibited employees from wearing hats and taking photographs inside the long-term care facility. Wright-Gore was embarrassed about a bad haircut and started to wear a hat to work, without comment from any supervisor. After a week, however, when supervisors told her to remove the hat, she refused and was sent home. The next day, White Oak employees dressed up in costumes for Halloween. Wright-Gore’s costume included a hat, but her supervisor made her remove the hat pursuant to company policy. Wright-Gore complained that White Oak was enforcing the hat policy unequally, but her supervisor told her to worry only about herself and gave her a written warning for insubordination because she had refused to remove her hat the day before.
During the next few weeks, Wright-Gore photographed several employees wearing hats to work and violating other White Oak dress policies, such as failing to cover up their tattoos. She photographed some employees with their consent, but also took photographs of employees without their consent. She also shared the photographs with other employees and discussed the unequal treatment with them in an attempt to build support for her argument. White Oak eventually discharged Wright-Gore for violating the photography policy.
She then filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging that White Oak interfered with her right to engage in protective concerted activity. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Wright-Gore’s complaints became protected concerted activity when they evolved into an effort to have White Oak enforce its dress code policies fairly. Another important issue was whether she lost protection of the Act by taking pictures of other employees without permission, in violation of White Oak policy. The ALJ held that she did not, in part, because there was evidence that other employees took pictures of each other without permission, and even displayed the pictures around the facility, without repercussion. The Board affirmed the ALJ findings.
On appeal, White Oak argued that Wright-Gore could not have engaged in protected concerted activity because she initially acted out of pure self- interest, and did not intend to act on behalf of a broader group. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument and enforced the Board’s decision. As the court noted, “[t]hat an employee’s self-interest catalyzed her decision to complain about working conditions does not inexorably bar a determination that her actions were protected and concerted.” Thus, the fact that Wright initially acted out of her own self- interest did not remove her actions from the protections of the Act. Moreover, the court’s decision emphasized the fact that White Oak had not enforced its photography or dress code policies consistently.
This case reinforces the importance of employers enforcing workplace policies consistently and the reality that seemingly individualized complaints can lead to employer decisions which conflict with the National Labor Relations Act.
Courtesy Franczek Radelet